Underworld – the British duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith – have been one of the most pioneering and influential electronic acts in the world for more than twenty years. In that time, their music has transcended club dancefloors and provided soundtracks to everything from iconic movies (Trainspotting) to the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games (for which they were handpicked as musical directors).
Rick and Karl met in Cardiff in the early ’80s and spent the following decade working together in a succession of bands with varying levels of success (highlights included a stint in the studio with Krautrock godfather Conny Plank and a Top 10 single in Italy as Freur). After splitting up an earlier version of Underworld (usually referred to as Mk 1), Rick relocated to Romford, Essex where he built a studio in his spare bedroom. A new version of Underworld began after Smith met a local up-and-coming DJ, Darren Emerson. Emerson’s sets in London clubs proved influential on Rick who began making music inspired by the sounds of UK’s nascent dance scene.
After a brace of singles released under the name Lemon Interrupt, the reinvigorated Underworld released Mmm Skyscraper… I Love You – a thirteen-minute blueprint for their future. Sounding unlike any other electronic record of that era (or since), the 1992 single fitted Karl’s hallucinogenic monologue to a rolling, relentless rhythm track. The dynamic may have been that of a band; the execution was something far more otherworldly. The album that followed – 1994’s hugely acclaimed dubnobasswithmyheadman – seamlessly blended man and machine to create ‘dance music utterly unlike any other dance music’ (Mojo).
In the months that followed the release of dubnobasswithmyheadman, Underworld built a formidable live reputation. Gigs became communions where songs were pulled in new directions and rearranged to suit the mood nightly. The band’s freeform shows set them apart from the more structured approach of their contemporaries.
Released early in 1996, Underworld’s second album – Second Toughest In The Infants – saw the band push further into the unknown to create what is unarguably one of the UK’s greatest electronic records – an utterly unique eight track sonic journey through techno, drum’n’bass, minimalist composition and ambient music. Upon release, the media elevated the band to something close to national treasure status (“A British band to rank alongside Pet Shop Boys, New Order… hell, Pink Floyd. If all acid house had ever left us was this, it would surely be justification enough” The Face).
Second Toughest…’s release coincided with that of Danny Boyle’s massively successful adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – the closing sequence of which was cut to an Underworld B-side from 1995 (Born Slippy: NUXX). By the time the track was reissued in the summer of ’96 after the success of the film, Born Slippy: NUXX had attained anthem status. The single would reach No 2 in the charts and go on to sell over one million copies in the UK.
Underworld’s third album – 1999’s Beaucoup Fish – was another critically lauded release (“There are rare moments when even the longest albums feel like they should go on forever: this, emphatically, is one of them” NME) and remains the band’s biggest selling to date. The record’s crossover success soon saw the band booked for main stage slots at festivals the world over, in turn becoming one of the most recognizable electronic acts around. Many of those performances were captured on film and audio for Everything, Everything – a live project that saw the band experimenting with fledgling DVD technology.
Soon after the Beaucoup Fish tour finished, Darren Emerson left Underworld to pursue solo projects. Continuing as a duo, Rick and Karl subsequently released an album – A Hundred Days Off (2002, “A very fine Underworld album – they don’t make any other kind… a beautiful and baffling enigma” Uncut, 4 out of 5) – that was preceded by the massive radio and club hit Two Months Off.
In 2006, Underworld began to explore the emerging possibilities of the Internet and direct selling when they released the Riverrun series. Ever the innovators, the band were one of the first major acts to release music solely in the digital market. The Riverrun releases (Lovely Broken Thing, Pizza for Eggs and I’m A Big Sister and I’m a Girl, and I’m a Princess, and This Is My Horse) presented new music mixed into freeform, single-track compilations and pointed towards the more experimental nature of 2007’s Oblivion With Bells (“Less the comedown than the sound of the party still going 10 years on.” NME, 8 out of 10).
Following a period soundtracking both Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, Rick and Karl released Barking in 2010 (“a harmonious marriage of the classic, propulsive Underworld sound and the kind of techniques and textures that postdate most of their career” Resident Advisor). The album saw the duo working with a handpicked selection of contemporary producers (including Mark Knight, High Contrast, Dubfire and Paul Van Dyk), many of who had been heavily influenced by the band when starting out.
Shortly after Barking’s release, Underworld were confirmed as musical directors for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. Directed by Danny Boyle and titled Isles of Wonder, the opening ceremony was viewed by 900 million people worldwide, including 27 million in the UK alone. Later that year, the band received Q magazine’s Innovation in Sound award.
In the autumn of 2014, Underworld reissued dubnobasswithmyheadman in deluxe form for its twentieth anniversary. The album was universally hailed as a classic (“Acclaimed at the time as the most important album since the Stone Roses’ debut, dubnobasswithmyheadman is no less singular and compelling 20 years later… the album sounds like a city talking to itself after dark.” The Guardian, “A revolutionary record.” The Quietus), a one-off show playing the album in its entirely at London’s iconic Royal Festival Hall sold out in seconds.
The dubnobass… reissue (followed in 2015 by a deluxe edition of Second Toughest In The Infants) and subsequent tour dates around the world provided the backdrop for the release of Underworld’s seventh album in 2016 – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future. The result of a strict recording process, the record showcases a creatively reborn Underworld; a band at their spontaneous, frenetic best.